The Civilized Cannibal had eyes like steel. They were set wide and white in her dark narrow face, and they stared with the hollow eyed vigilance of a killer. Within them two small black coals rolled from side to side and rattled like snakes. She knew how to read and write, and she spoke broken English. The Doctor who brought her to study at our hospital told us she attended Harvard. The Doctor told us she was a Shaman studying medicine to bring back to her people. She wore little. She came to this country to be educated, but she never learned shame. Thick colorful intertwined ribbons made up her brassier. It wound round her neck and cupped her hanging breasts like multicolored hands. They jiggled as she walked. She wore a leather skirt of questionable skin, lined with teeth and claws at the top, and always there on her hip a primitive pan flute hung made of hollowed out bones. She never changed, and it was questionable whether or not they were ever washed. Her skin was the black brown of unground coffee beans,and its darkness shined under our florescent lights. She smeared her skin with white paint in spiraling shapes. She stood a head taller than our tallest man and sang eerie songs that resonated in her throat. Her hair stood like a halo of black metal around her head, and she used bone white clasps to pull it back from her face. She had sharp narrow features that pinched together, but her lips were large and full and painted white. She frightened us. We could not pronounce her name, and referred to her in only whispers. She stank like the damp caves of deep earth.
She built herself a hut out of sticks and stones and mud against the base of a tree. She never once set foot upon a bus, but walked with even confident strides in her state of undress before us all. Her feet touched the pavement in strange ways. We cleared a path for her and stood in a circle around her, our mouths wide and gaped. When she came through town we would look on, and shudder, and cover our children’s eyes. The first few weeks she was among us she smiled at us all with large glowing white teeth that were as sharp and jagged as knives. Our eyes would slide away from her face to the cement and focus on the leather straps and wood that served as her shoes. After a while she didn’t smile at anyone, anyone other than children and Mary Klein the girl who worked in the hospital’s mortuary. As we stood and watched her weave her way lost and confused through our streets, Mary Klein separated herself from us and took her by the hand and lead her to the hospital. We watched and wondered what would make her do such a thing as to take the Cannibal by the hand, and when their skin touched we shuddered. Mary Klein became a stranger among us. She had always been a little strange, but the contact broke some connection that kept her tethered to our community. She had always been strange, working with the dead often makes one strange. But she had been one of us.
Mary Klein, who walked among the dead and touched their skin without shuddering, became the Cannibal’s first and only friend. Suspicion grew in our mind, and while our tear-stained eyes surveyed our dearly departed we wondered what meats Mary had taken from them to feed her new companion. We looked on, and we shuddered, and we checked on our children periodically through out the night. And every where that Mary Klein would go, the Cannibal would follow after. They started walking arm and arm, they started holding hands, and wrapping one arm around one another as they strode through the streets. The Cannibal began to paint black spirals upon her cream white skin. Then they began to lie together, like the ancient inhabitants of Lesbos, entwined in the field not far from the playground where the children would play. She would serenade Mary Klein with her raspy throat singing, and the primal sounds would carry. She would compose poetry in her broken English about Mary Klein’s sweet meat and silk hair. Mary Klein would run her fingers over the Cannibal’s sharp features and round lips, and when they kissed it made the wet smacking sound of forbidden love. It would echo through the playground carnally and we would stand stiff as our children played on, and listen, and shudder. We would call our children to us and cover their ears as we rushed to our cars. We wouldn’t let them play there anymore, not while they laid so close by. While she was with Mary Klein she would laugh, and the foreign bark of it sped the beat of our hearts. The roar of it displayed all of her sharp teeth, and chilled our bones. We dreamt, every night, that she was gnawing on them.
There was no doubt that they were the happiest lovers living among us. And we hated them.
We hated them for their lack of shame, for their loud suckling kisses. We hated the curve of the Cannibals mouth and how easy it opened. How wide it opened. We hated how her eyes and teeth would glow in the dark like the predators in our most primitive nightmares. We hated to watch them eat, feeding one another sloppy bites of meat that dribbled blood down their chins. We hated how Mary Klein’s face would swivel round to catch ours and her mouth would be red and dripping against her pale round face. They were beautiful, the way their skin contrasted against one another, a mockery of the yin and yang symbol that Mary Klein sported above her loose fitting sweaters. She took to wearing turtle necks, but even those could not conceal the bite marks trailing up and down her neck and arms. We hated every indent in skin that boasted of the Cannibal’s powerful teeth. We hated the echo of her pan flute as it filled our vacant streets after dark. No one went outdoors once the sun went down. Mothers waited for their children in their doorways after school and watched them during play. They shuddered as the children in all their innocent glory, mimed the actions of primal head hunters in the jungle. No one went into the woods. We dreamed of lions and spears, and we shuddered and checked on our children. We hated her, and now we hated Mary Klein, who had always been one of us until she touched the pink palm of the Civilized Cannibal, kissed her dimpled dark chin. She pierced her ears with two thin curved bones that the Cannibal gave her. She had always been strange. She had always passed among us like a specter, pale and wane and dressed in white aprons and black boots. We can not recall what her smile was before, but now it shined and glowed with the fierceness of a wolf with a child’s heart in its mouth, the red blood ringing its lipless mouth, dripping blood onto its fur.
She wore a ring of grass wound round her finger that the Cannibal replaced daily. We all saw it perched there, and it dyed her finger green with its juices. She smiled, she laughed. Though no one would listen, she often announced that she was in love. While she worked she would hum, deep in her throat, and dream of her lover while she worked on our dead. She stood over them without fear and looked them in the eyes and at their insides and blood would fleck her apron and she would dream of love and walk without shame. The thought made us shudder, and we would hold our children close and rock them back and forth and sing to them nonsense syllables to try and bleed the image out of our minds. We hated her. She no longer walked among us but through us and past us and we’d avert our eyes as she played with the ring the Cannibal gave her everyday at dawn.
We’d watch as she would wait outside of Mary Klein’s house, weaving the grass into little circlets and staring with all the concentration and concern of a predator as the sun rose behind Mary Klein’s suburban home, complete with it’s white picket fence and a wooden swing dangling from the large oak. She would sit beside the swing and wrap one long dark arm around it’s twisted rope, and place the ring on top of the worn seat. She would wait, and Mary Klein would peek out of her curtains first, then run down the stairs and out the door in nothing more than her night gown and stoop to kiss the Cannibal’s forehead. We would be awake, our eyes pressed against the glass, watching, and we’d shudder, and check on our children, and hope that it would end.
Then the Cannibal came to live with her, and Mary Klein’s perfect yard became the display case of exotic carvings the Cannibal would whittle and place upon the yard. Carvings of animals not known in these lands, or tigers and lions pouncing, and primal pregnant women holding their bellies. Of phallic tribal men. We’d walk our children to school and cover their eyes as they passed, but look on with our own and shudder, and mutter dark curses and prayers of protection against the Cannibal and her haunting art. In the evenings she would push Mary Klein upon the swing and stroke her hair. She burned strange plants and the smell infected the neighborhood. The children would come home stinking of it, and when parents caught their noses twitching and their smiles growing wide they would haul them up to the bathroom and scrub them until they were red. We hated the smell. We hated the carvings. We hated the way they sang to each other as the Cannibal pushed Mary Klein upon the swing.
When summer came and the schools released the children to the streets during the day, mothers ran themselves ragged trying to keep track of where the little ones would go. They tried keeping them locked up, but that met with such vicious resentment they had to cave and allow them to wander. We worked in teams then, each person taking shifts where they would stand by and watch the children as they climbed the jungle gym and pushed each other on the swings. They were tense days, and we carried ourselves with a madness verging on hysterics every time a child was a minute late to lunch or dinner. The Cannibal lived in complete happiness among us, and each night we shuddered to think on what Mary Klein brought home for dinner. And they rubbed their red lips together in full view of the window while they ate, and we watched and shuddered and closed our blinds when the children came home. At night we thought we heard their love, and we thought we heard screams, and we checked on our children and we picked up the phone to call the police before placing it back down again. And we hated it.
At the hospital the Cannibal reached out to stroke a pregnant girl’s stomach, and she recoiled. She screamed and covered her eyes. The coal within the Cannibal’s eyes rattled, and her elegant eyebrows drooped but she did not cry. She went down to the mortuary. She left white lip prints upon Mary Klein’s eyes. She sang a song deep in her throat, and she went home early.
We watched as Summer reached its plateau, and the air burned hot as Africa, and our blood boiled. She sat upon the wooden swing and played her archaic flute and Mary Klein danced, and we hated it and drowned it out with the noise of our television sets and radios. Their sounds lingered in the air, along with the heathen scent of the herbs she burned, and our ears rang, our eyes watered, and we clutched the hands of our children and told them not to go into the woods. To never walk alone.
The children, in their innocence, called her Can-bowl and tried to imitate her raspy songs. We would narrow our eyes and send them to bed. Sometimes we slapped their faces and felt afraid, and felt ashamed, and dreamed they’d gnaw upon our bones. Our feet fell strange upon the pavement. We walked on pins and needles.
Then one day a child did not come home for dinner. The children had been playing hide and seek at the playground near the woods where the Cannibal and her lover would often lay. As the sun set the parents called every house and roused every neighbor. The town gathered on the lawn of Mary Klein’s house. We shrieked the child’s name until their heads bobbed out from behind the curtain and they looked down on us with eyes like steel.
One of us produced a shotgun, and demanded that the child be brought to us immediately. The child’s name was screamed repeatedly, and through the tinted glass we saw dribbles of juices at the corners of the Cannibal’s mouth. Women collapsed screaming, the mothers wailed, each one, as if it were their own child’s blood dripping from the Cannibal’s white lips. Names were hurled like rocks. Their faces disappeared, and there was no movement from within the house. The world grew dark. Men advanced as one, and beat the door down with the carvings of antelopes, lions, and pregnant women. They moved into the darkness of the house and began to howl for the child, began to scream for the blood of the Cannibal. Lights flashed on and off, and from the windows the forms of the men could be seen toppling the dining room table, tearing portraits from the walls. On the second floor Mary Klein and the Cannibal pushed the bed against the door and cowered above it. The Cannibal wrapped her painted arms around her body and they wailed, and the women on the lawn wailed and locked glowing eyes on the women above with contempt and hunger. The men gathered at Mary Klein’s bedroom door and began to break its wood apart with their fists and feet and the statues some still carried. The child could not be found within, but they forced the door open and one by one squeezed through.
They pulled Mary Klein from the arms of the Cannibal and she screamed as she fought them, reaching out to grab her when the men piled upon her. “Mwari,” she screamed, as her lover’s form disappeared through the crack in the door, and then the men were dragging her after. Soon they were on the lawn, and we gathered around as they were pulled through the throng of us, and we clawed and scratched and spat on them as they passed, forming a circle around the tree. The Cannibal reached out her hand towards Mary Klein, her eyes wide and white and rattling, and Mary Klein writhed in our hands and reached out her own. We fell upon her to pull her back and her teeth found purchase in our skin. We screamed and struck her. We beat her senseless with our fists and our feet and the statues that littered the ground. We tore grass out of the yard and smeared it in her face and mouth, we tossed her, and eventually she collapsed unconscious into our arms. The Cannibal howled and fell to her knees, in her broken english she accused us of Mary Klein’s death, and we dragged them both to separate sides of the tree.
The wooden swing was torn down and we used the rope to secure them. The Cannibal didn’t resist but rocked back and forth against the trunk moaning Mwari Mwari Mwari. Bottles of fire flew through the air and a gas can was produced. Soon the Mary Klein’s suburban home was a flaming effigy. We screamed for the lost child, and the Cannibal cried fat tears that glowed in the light. We screamed harder against her moans and the sounds mingled into a primal medley. We kicked dirt upon them. We tossed against each other within the ring to reach the center, to reach out to the Cannibal and her lover and strike them. We hurled the statues until they were gathered around them. We lit fire to the tree. We spread our circle farther around it to watch as it flamed up, and we shouted, and we screamed.
Then things grew quiet and we looked at one another. The soot had died our skin coal black. Our eyes and teeth glowed in the light of the fire. We had the hollow vigilance of killers, and as we stood, looking one another with white eyes, the child wandered among us, its bright white face tilted to the side. It’s mouth hung gaped and horrified. Our noise had led it from its hiding place in the woods. It stared at the embers of the dying fire, and then at us. We circled round it, leaning in and singing nonsense songs to comfort it. We went to touch its face and it recoiled. It screamed and covered its eyes. It began to weep.